December 25, 2019, I found a thin, envelope-shaped present sealed in a recycled brown bag paper in my stocking. Holding my breath with anticipation, I tore open the seal and wiggled papers out from the packaging. There they were: two tickets to Whose Live Anyway at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA on April 19, 2020. Finally, the time had come for me to witness the improv group I grew up watching on The CW. I pinned the tickets to my corkboard and began to keep a mental countdown of how long I had until the show.
The announcement that the show would be rescheduled for September 10, 2020 came as no surprise. And then re-rescheduled for April 22, 2021. And re-re-rescheduled once more for September 30, 2021. Just a week ago the world stopped turning — the restaurant I worked at closed and campus shooed us away. No longer was there something, anything, to look forward to. The days blended and were marred by banana bread making and room redecorating. Everyone was trying to do their best to cope, picking up hobbies to occupy their days or FaceTiming friends to satisfy the need to socialize. After some time, I wound up like Kristen Stewart in New Moon, sitting in a chair and staring blankly out the window as the days changed.
Socialization is a basic human need, explains Dr. Alissa Hochman, visiting assistant professor in clinical and counseling psychology at Muhlenberg College. While giving a lecture on Freud in class, she says that she talks about inherent drives with the students. “We have basic needs like food, water, warmth, and shelter. And Freud would say sex and love are basic drives. And I really believe that socialization is an inherent need that we have. When you look at socializing in other species, it’s pretty established too. Especially with alpacas. If you have only one alpaca, it will actually die from loneliness.” It won’t die solely because it’s alone, but it will become so stressed out that it will be unable to cope and its health will suffer as a result. The forced loneliness is also suffered by humans. “Low mood and depressed feelings can lead us to socially isolate, which then leads to even more depression and lower mood,” says Hochman. “Lacking socialization in extreme ways will impact mental health.”
Even the most introverted suffered after months of being sequestered away in a quarantine bubble. Based on what I could tell from my Twitter feed, we were all itching to get out. It was like everyone was missing a piece of themselves and they knew they weren’t overreacting. No one was saying “relax, get over it.” I mean, it was damn traumatic and the whole world was watching. Americans were cranky, restless, and depressed, so naturally, they coped with a cure of martinis. The martinis were a temporary fix. What we needed was socialization. Susan Pinker, a psychologist quoted in this Medical News Today article, compares face-to-face contact to a neurotransmitter cocktail. Just shaking hands with someone releases oxytocin and cortisol, reducing stress and anxiety. Obviously, the real cure for this mess is vaccination, but the mental cure certainly has to do with socializing. In an article by the Mayo Clinic discussing the benefits of socializing, they say that “socializing not only staves off feelings of loneliness, but also it helps sharpen memory and cognitive skills, increases your sense of happiness and well-being, and may even help you live longer.”
Ticket holders file onto the sidewalk in front of the Keswick Theatre, bustling and chatting in place. The audience for “Whose Live Anyway” is dressed to the nines — a sparkling silver shirt that looks like a disco ball, a man’s best sweater, and autumnal toned jumpers with short boots dot the crowd. The air is contagious with excitement; everyone is eager for their first event following lockdown. Half the crowd is masked, the other half without, their noses shining red in the cold. The electricity radiates off excited smiles, smiling so hard you can tell through a mask. Even waiting in a still line is fun. Some people keep quiet, anxiously keeping distance between themselves and the others in line and nervously looking back if someone steps too close. They practically hold a cross up to those without masks.
Groups chatter amongst themselves, others make friends in line with the ‘man when will this thing move’ jab, as a small, older woman who is supposed to be part of security makes her way down the line to verify vaccine cards and IDs. Those with a mask on are completely prepared, sending the woman on her way to the next person in line. Others, however, fuss in their purses digging for their vaccine cards or proof of a negative test. The woman waits patiently, as they seem like real honest folk to her. Those she deems are wasting her time are told, “I’ll come back to you when you’re ready,” before she moves on to the next. She issues a purple carnival ticket to those who pass inspection and sends them to another line for the metal detector. She taps her foot nervously; her watch reads 8:25 and they are on a strict schedule to get everyone in by 8:30.
We hand our purple stubs to an usher who ushers us to another usher who offers the option of being ushered to the bar or to your seats. Most people stop at the bar. An awful lot of them abuse their drinking privileges to keep their masks off. The ushers only offer one direction if you’ve already been to the bar. A red-vested woman with a flashlight hanging around her neck takes us to our seats, Q101 and Q102. Our breath catches in our throats. They’re the last two in the row next to the aisle. And Q99 and Q100 are empty. We silently plead to the seat gods, hoping the seats will remain empty and our social distancing anxiety will be assuaged.
No one joins the Row Q party after the lights dim. Greg Proops, the self-proclaimed leader of the improv group, takes the stage. The theater fills with excitement, bursting in applause.
“Welcome ladies and gentleman to the first leg of our “Whose Live Anyway” tour, originally scheduled for April 2020. Wow, look at how you’ve all grown!”
Greg grins at the masked crowd and expresses how excited they are to be back, albeit a little rusty. He takes a minute to thank everyone for wearing their masks properly so they can start and finish their tour, then begins introducing the rest of the cast — fresh meat Joel Murray, handsome guy Jeff B. Davis and finally, the old pro, the fan favorite, Ryan Stiles. The evening didn’t escape from pandemic jokes that were met with cringing and scattered applause. Greg explained that there would be audience participation during the show and he asked the crowd to yell out something to use in a scene to start.
"Teacher!" "Movie!" "Mask! He gasps into the mic. “Mask?! Oh shit this is a bad idea.”
There seem to be two groups of people, those who have had enough, that are throwing caution to the wind and ready to dive in and those who Dr. Hochman says are wary about the layer of pervasive anxiety of knowing that the virus can be lurking anywhere. The wary and wayward have been directed by the very polarizing media they’d been consuming during the pandemic and the determining factor of being vaccinated was political affiliation, proving the harsh divide that has been a pandemic of its own for years. Dr. Hochman adds that there hasn’t been good information out there. And that information sticks, but people don’t seem to understand that information evolves, that it’s okay to be wrong. “At first, we thought masking wasn’t necessary,” she explains, “but then began to understand the virus more and learned that masking is actually really important.”
As vaccines became available, people felt they’d sacrificed enough by quarantining and not socializing. Dr. Hochman says that the pandemic burnout coupled with a longing to socialize pushed people to do it the right way, the safe way, by being vaccinated. And having a person in your life, like an elderly parent, child, or someone who is immunocompromised that can be negatively impacted by the virus can make them more wary of what they might be exposed to. Others are willing to comply with vaccine requirements as long as they get out and have fun and return to normal. Those who flagrantly defy mask requirements by nursing their drink for the entire show are perceived as selfish by those who are nervous but decided to take the risk for the opportunity to recharge their social battery.
It really comes down to empathy — those who care and those who don’t. Many, Dr. Hochman included, believe empathy should be taught in schools because it is crucial to put ourselves in the shoes of others. She tries to be conscious of empathy within her psychology classroom by humanizing the different topics and disorders her class discusses. She stresses to her students the importance of thinking about what it’s like to have a psychological disorder and to recognize that people in the classroom might have the disorders they’re talking about. “We’re not talking about them out there,” she explains to her students. “We’re talking about us here.” Dr. Hochman says that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to envision yourself in someone else’s situation. What is it like to be someone who is immunocompromised and struggles with anxiety because of the risk of infection? What is it like to lose someone you care about? It’s a skill to empathize, but it’s a skill to practice, and an important one. Empathy is the glue that keeps your mask above your nose.
Meanwhile, the theater is filled with a few scattered chuckles when a joke doesn’t land, a gasp right on cue when they hear something shocking, and audible cringing every time someone coughs. Greg Proops calls on a couple in the audience to help with a bit on stage. At second glance, he notices the man’s mask is around his chin. Without taking a moment, he begins yelling: “Put your mask on! Plague on society. Hello! We’d like to finish the tour!”